Trump’s Grand Strategy

Posted by Michael Klare at 8:02am, July 24, 2018 to TomDispatch
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By Tom Engelhardt

And since Donald Trump has, after his own fashion, smashed the ship of state directly into that same media and changed the landscape of our world of “information,” he’s also made an endless range of journalists and pundits into something new: actors on his planet.  If you don’t believe me, watch Wolf Blitzer “interviewing” — which means mostly ranting to — Senator Rand Paul, who is defending the president, and tell me that we’re not in a new id-ified world of reportage.

In such a world of id-sters, it’s also possible that something important is being missed.  Perhaps the way to think about it (and our president) is in this fashion: if there’s madness to his method (and there is), that doesn’t mean that there isn’t method to his madness.  Read TomDispatch regular Michael Klare today and tell me that isn’t possible.  Klare suggests that, when it comes to global policy in relation to Russia, China, and the European Union, there has always been a distinct Trumpian method to those mad displays of his.   [Tom]

Entering a 1984 World, Trump-Style
Or Implementing the Sino-Russian Blueprint for a Tripolar World Order
By Michael T. Klare

The pundits and politicians generally take it for granted that President Trump lacks a coherent foreign policy. They believe that he acts solely out of spite, caprice, and political opportunism — lashing out at U.S. allies like Germany’s Angela Merkel and England’s Theresa May only to embrace authoritarian rulers like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. His instinctive rancor and impulsiveness seemed on full display during his recent trip to Europe, where he lambasted Merkel, undercut May, and then, in an extraordinary meeting with Putin, dismissed any concerns over Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential election (before half-walking his own comments back).

“Nobody knows when Trump is doing international diplomacy and when he is doing election campaigning in Montana,” commented Danish defense minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen following the summit. “It is difficult to decode what policy the American president is promoting. There is a complete unpredictability in this.”

While that reaction may be typical, it’s a mistake to assume that Trump lacks a coherent foreign-policy blueprint. In fact, an examination of his campaign speeches and his actions since entering the Oval Office — including his appearance with Putin — reflect his adherence to a core strategic concept: the urge to establish a tripolar world order, one that was, curiously enough, first envisioned by Russian and Chinese leaders in 1997 and one that they have relentlessly pursued ever since.

Such a tripolar order — in which Russia, China, and the U.S. would each assume responsibility for maintaining stability within their own respective spheres of influence while cooperating to resolve disputes wherever those spheres overlap — breaks radically with the end-of-the-Cold-War paradigm. During those heady years, the United States was the dominant world power and lorded it over most of the rest of the planet with the aid of its loyal NATO allies.

For Russian and Chinese leaders, such a “unipolar” system was considered anathema.  After all, it granted the United States a hegemonic role in world affairs while denying them what they considered their rightful place as America’s equals. Not surprisingly, destroying such a system and replacing it with a tripolar one has been their strategic objective since the late 1990s — and now an American president has zealously embraced that disruptive project as his own.

The Sino-Russian Master Plan

The joint Russian-Chinese project to undermine the unipolar world system was first set in motion when then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin conferred with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin during a state visit to Moscow in April 1997. Restoring close relations with Russia while building a common front against U.S. global dominance was reportedly the purpose of Jiang’s trip.

“Some are pushing toward a world with one center,” said Yeltsin at the time. “We want the world to be multipolar, to have several focal points. These will form the basis for a new world order.”

This outlook was inscribed in a “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order,” signed by the two leaders on April 23, 1997.  Although phrased in grandiose language (as its title suggests), the declaration remains worth reading as it contains most of the core principles on which Donald Trump’s foreign policy now rests.

At its heart lay a condemnation of global hegemony — the drive by any single nation to dominate world affairs — along with a call for the establishment of a “multipolar” international order. It went on to espouse other key precepts that would now be considered Trumpian, including unqualified respect for state sovereignty, non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states (code for no discussion of their human rights abuses), and the pursuit of mutual economic advantage.

Yeltsin would resign as president in December 1999, while Jiang would complete his term in March 2003. Their successors, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao, would, however, continue to build on that 1997 foundational document, issuing their own blueprint for a tripolar world in 2005.

Following a Kremlin meeting that July, the two would sign an updated “Joint Statement of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation Regarding the International Order of the 21st Century.”  It was even more emphatic in its commitment to a world in which the United States would be obliged to negotiate on equal terms with Moscow and Beijing, stating:

“The international community should thoroughly renounce the mentality of confrontation and alignment, should not pursue the right to monopolize or dominate world affairs, and should not divide countries into a leading camp and a subordinate camp… World affairs should be decided through dialogue and consultation on a multilateral and collective basis.”

The principal aim of such a strategy was, and continues to be, to demolish a U.S.-dominated world order — especially one in which that dominance was ensured by American reliance on its European allies and NATO. The ability to mobilize not only its own power but also Europe’s gave Washington a particularly outsized role in international affairs. If such ties could be crippled or destroyed, its clout would obviously be diminished and so it might someday become just another regional heavyweight.

In those years, Putin was particularly vocal in calling for the dissolution of NATO and its replacement by a European-wide security system that would, of course, include his country. The divisions in Europe “will continue until there is a single security area in Europe,” he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2001. Just as the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded as the Cold War ended, he argued, so Western Europe’s Cold War-era alliance, NATO, should be replaced with a broader security structure.

Donald Trump Climbs on Board

There is no way to know whether Donald Trump was ever aware — no matter how indirectly — of such Sino-Russian goals or planning, but there can be no question that, in his own fashion and for his own reasons, he has absorbed their fundamental principles.  As his recent assaults on NATO and his embrace of the Russian president suggest, he is visibly seeking to create the very tripolar world once envisioned by Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin and zealously promoted by Vladimir Putin ever since he assumed office.

The proof that Trump sought such an international system can be found in his 2016 campaign speeches and interviews. While he repeatedly denounced China for its unfair trade practices and complained about Russia’s nuclear-weapons buildup, he never described those countries as mortal enemies.  They were rivals or competitors with whose leaders he could communicate and, when advantageous, cooperate. On the other hand, he denounced NATO as a drain on America’s prosperity and its ability to maneuver successfully in the world.  Indeed, he saw that alliance as eminently dispensable if its members were unwilling to support his idea of how to promote America’s best interests in a highly competitive world.

“I am proposing a new foreign policy focused on advancing America’s core national interests, promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world,” he declared in a September 2016 speech in Philadelphia. From that speech and other campaign statements, you can get a pretty good idea of his mindset.

First, make the United States — already the world’s most powerful nation — even stronger, especially militarily. Second, protect America’s borders. (“Immigration security,” he explained, “is a vital part of our national security.”) Third, in contrast to the version of globalism previously espoused by the American version of a liberal international order, this country was to pursue only its own interests, narrowly defined. Playing the role of global enforcer for allies, he argued, had impoverished the United States and must be ended. “At some point,” as he put it to New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and David Sanger in March 2016, “we cannot be the policeman of the world.”

As for NATO, he couldn’t have been clearer: it had become irrelevant and its preservation should no longer be an American priority. “Obsolete” was the word he used with Haberman and Sanger. “When NATO was formed many decades ago… there was a different threat, [the Soviet Union,]… which was much bigger… [and] certainly much more powerful than even today’s Russia.” The real threat, he continued, is terrorism, and NATO had no useful role in combating that peril. “I think, probably a new institution maybe would be better for that than using NATO, which was not meant for that.”

All of this, of course, fit to a T what Vladimir Putin has long been calling for, not to speak of the grand scheme articulated by Yeltsin and Jiang in 1997. Indeed, during the second presidential debate, Trump went even further, saying, “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together.”

Though the focus at the moment is purely on President Trump and Russia, let’s not forget China. While frequently lambasting the Chinese in the economic realm, he has nonetheless sought Beijing’s help in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat and other common perils. He speaks often by telephone with President Xi Jinping and insists that they enjoy an amicable relationship. Indeed, to the utter astonishment of many of his Republican allies, he even allowed the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE to regainaccess to essential American technology and computer chips after paying a $1 billion fine, though the firm had been widely accused of violating U.S. sanctions on trade with Iran and North Korea. Such a move was, he claimed, “reflective” of his wish to negotiate a successful trade deal with China “and my personal relationship with President Xi.”

Trump’s World Reflects That Sino-Russian Plan

Although there’s no evidence that Donald Trump ever even knew about the Sino-Russian blueprint for establishing a tripolar global order, everything he’s done as president has had the affect of facilitating that world-altering project. This was stunningly evident at the recent Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, where he repeatedly spoke of his desire to cooperate with Moscow in solving global problems.

“The disagreements between our two countries are well known and President Putin and I discussed them at length today,” he said at the press conference that followed their private conversation. “But if we’re going to solve many of the problems facing our world, then we’re going to have to find ways to cooperate in pursuit of shared interests.” He then went on to propose that officials of the national security councils of the two countries get together to discuss such matters — an extraordinary proposal given the historical mistrust between Washington and Moscow.

And despite the furor his warm embrace of Putin triggered in Washington, Trump doubled down on his strategic concept by inviting the Russian leader to the White House for another round of one-on-one talks this fall. According to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, National Security Advisor John Bolton is already in preparatory talks with the Kremlin for such a meeting.

The big question in all this, of course, is: Why? Why would an American president seek to demolish a global order in which the United States was the dominant player and enjoyed the support of so many loyal and wealthy allies?  Why would he want to replace it with one in which it would be but one of three regional heavyweights?

Undoubtedly, historians will debate this question for decades. The obvious answer, offered by so many pundits, is that he doesn’t actually know what he’s doing, that it’s all thoughtless and impulsive. But there’s another possible answer: that he intuits in the Sino-Russian template a model that the United States could emulate to its benefit.

In the Trumpian mindset, this country had become weak and overextended because of its uncritical adherence to the governing precepts of the liberal international order, which called for the U.S. to assume the task of policing the world while granting its allies economic and trade advantages in return for their loyalty. Such an assessment, whether accurate or not, certainly jibes well with the narrative of victimization that so transfixed his core constituency in rustbelt areas of Middle America. It also suggests that an inherited burden could now be discarded, allowing for the emergence of a less-encumbered, stronger America — much as a stronger Russia has emerged in this century from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and a stronger China from the wreckage of Maoism. This reinvigorated country would still, of course, have to compete with those other two powers, but from a far stronger position, being able to devote all its resources to economic growth and self-protection without the obligation of defending half of the rest of the world.

Listen to Trump’s speeches, read through his interviews, and you’ll find just this proposition lurking behind virtually everything he has to say on foreign policy and national security. “You know… there is going to be a point at which we just can’t do this anymore,” he told Haberman and Sanger in 2016, speaking of America’s commitments to allies. “You know, when we did those deals, we were a rich country… We were a rich country with a very strong military and tremendous capability in so many ways. We’re not anymore.”

The only acceptable response, he made clear, was to jettison such overseas commitments and focus instead on “restoring” the country’s self-defense capabilities through a massive buildup of its combat forces. (The fact that the United States already possesses far more capable weaponry than any of its rivals and outspends them by a significant margin when it comes to the acquisition of additional munitions doesn’t seem to have any impact on Trump’s calculations.)

This outlook would be embedded in his administration’s National Security Strategy, released last December. The greatest threat to American security, it claimed, wasn’t ISIS or al-Qaeda, but Russian and Chinese efforts to bolster their military power and extend their geopolitical reach. But given the administration’s new approach to global affairs, it suggested, there was no reason to believe that the country was headed for an inevitable superpower conflagration. (“Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict. An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict.”)

However ironic it might seem, this is, of course, the gist of the Sino-Russian tripolar model as embraced and embellished by Donald Trump. It envisions a world of constant military and economic contention among three regional power centers, generating crises of various sorts, but not outright war. It assumes that the leaders of those three centers will cooperate on matters affecting them all, such as terrorism, and negotiate as necessary to prevent minor skirmishes from erupting into major battles.

Will this system prove more stable and durable than the crumbling unipolar world order it’s replacing? Who knows? If Russia, China, and the United States were of approximately equal strength, it might indeed theoretically prevent one party from launching a full-scale conflict with another, lest the aggrieved country join the third power, overwhelming the aggressor.

Eerily enough, this reflects the future world as envisioned in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 — a world in which three great-power clusters, Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, contend for global dominance, periodically forming new two-against-one alliances. However, as the United States currently possesses significantly greater military power than Russia and China combined, that equation doesn’t really apply and so, despite the mammoth nuclear arsenals of all three countries, the possibility of a U.S.-initiated war cannot be ruled out. In a system of ever-competing super-states, the risk of crisis and confrontation will always be present, along with the potential for nuclear escalation.

One thing we can be reasonably sure of, however, regarding such a system is that smaller, weaker states, and minority peoples everywhere will be given even shorter shrift than at present when caught in any competitive jousting for influence among the three main competitors (and their proxies). This is the crucial lesson to be drawn from the grim fighting still ongoing in Syria and eastern Ukraine: you are only worth something as long as you do the bidding of your superpower patron.  When your utility is exhausted — or you’re unfortunate enough to be trapped in a zone of contention — your life is worth nothing. No lasting peace is attainable in such an environment and so, just as in Orwell’s 1984, war — or preparing for war — will be a perpetual condition of life.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. His most recent book is The Race for What’s Left. His next book, All Hell Breaking Loose: Climate Change, Global Chaos, and American National Security, will be published in 2019.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Storyand Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.

Copyright 2018 Michael T. Klare

A new world is dawning, and the US will no longer lead it

File 20180622 26555 1lnka31.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump, at the contentious G7 Leaders Summit in Canada in June.
AP/Jesco Denzel/German Federal Government

By , Professor Emeritus, American University School of International Service

From pulling out of treaties to denigrating allies to starting trade wars, the impulsive actions of President Donald Trump are upending the international order that has been in place since the end of World War II.

But even before Trump’s belligerent foreign policy positions, America had been gradually losing its dominant role in world affairs.

A power shift among the nations of the world began at the end of the Cold War and has been accelerating this century.

It is not as simple as saying “America is in decline,” since America remains a powerful country. But American global power has been eroding for some time, as I argue in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2018” volume. The power of other countries has grown, giving them both the ability and the desire to effect global affairs independently of U.S. desires.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: ‘We are the indispensable nation.’
AP/Joe Marquette

I am a foreign policy scholar and practitioner who has studied U.S. foreign policy through many administrations. I believe this global trend spells the end of the “exceptional nation” Americans imagined they were since the nation was founded and the end of the American era of global domination that began 70 years ago. We are no longer the “indispensable” nation celebrated by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the end of the last century.

Pax Americana no more

Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has been the central player in the international system, leading in the creation of new international organizations like the United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

American diplomacy has been essential to multinational agreements on trade, climate, regional security and arms control. Americans could and did claim to be at the center of a “rules-based international order.”

Those days are gone.

Not only do China and Russia contest America’s global role, a growing number of other countries are asserting an independent and increasingly influential role in regional economic and security developments.

Neither American political party has come to grips with this sea change. Until they do, U.S. global actions are likely to be less effective, even counterproductive.

Who’s on top?

The power shifts are increasingly visible. In the Middle East, the U.S. hoped for decades to isolate Iran as a pariah and weaken the regime until it fell.

Today, that goal is unimaginable, though national security adviser John Bolton continues to imagine it.

Iran is and will remain an increasingly assertive and influential power in the region, defending and promoting its interests and competing with the Saudi regime.

The Russians are in the Middle East region for good, building on their long-standing relationship with the family of Syria’s dictator.

Turkey, a rising regional power, acts increasingly independent of the preferences of the U.S., its NATO ally, playing its own hand in the regional power game.

The U.S. helped unleash these trends with the strategically fatal invasion of Iraq in 2003 – fatal, because it permanently removed a regional leader who balanced the power of Iran. The failure to create a stable Iraq stimulated regional religious and political conflicts and rendered ineffective subsequent U.S. efforts to influence current trends in the region, as the continually ineffective policies in Syria show.

U.S. Army helicopter crew chief in Afghanistan.
Capt. Brian Harris, U.S. Army via AP

In Asia, decades of U.S. condemnation and efforts to contain the rise of Chinese power have failed. An assertive China has risen.

China now plays almost as powerful a role in the global economy as the U.S. It has defended an authoritarian model for economic growth, armed artificial islands in the South China Sea, and built a military base in Djibouti. China has created new multilateral organizations for security discussions and one for infrastructure loans, which the U.S. declined to join. It has developed a global lending program – the Belt and Road Initiative – and has stepped into a stronger global role on climate change. And China is spreading its political and economic influence into Africa and Latin America.

The U.S. cannot slow Chinese economic growth nor contain its power. China is changing the rules, whether the U.S. likes it or not.

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan moves toward a renewed nationalism and has removed restrictions on its defense spending and the deployment of its military in the face of growing Chinese power.

North Korea behaves more and more like a regional power, winning a direct meeting with the U.S. president while making only a general commitment to denuclearize. The prospect of a unified Korea would bring into being another major regional power center in the Northern Pacific.

Other countries, like the Philippines and Australia, hedge their bets by improving bilateral relations with China. And India is a growing economic and military presence in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.

Nor will the U.S. contain the rise of Russia, whose government poisons its citizens overseas and kills dissenters at home. At the same time, Russia is rebuilding its military and intruding in others’ elections. The Russian regime is threatening its near neighbors and actively engaging in the Middle East.

President Vladimir Putin asserts Russia’s interests and role in the world, like any other great power. Russia is consciously and actively rebalancing the power of the United States, with some success.

Military power, the American global trump card, is not as useful a tool as it once was.

While the U.S. continues to have the world’s only global military capability, able to deploy anywhere, it is no longer evident that this capability effectively sustains U.S. leadership. Clear military victories are few – the Gulf War in 1991 being an exception. The endless U.S. deployment in Afghanistan carries the whiff of Vietnam in its inability to resolve that country’s civil war.

Meanwhile, the militaries of other countries, acting independently of the U.S., are proving effective, as both Turkish and Iranian operations in Syria suggest.

Abroad at home

The transition to this new era is proving difficult for American policy-makers.

The Trump “America First” foreign policy is based on the view that the U.S. needs to defend its interests by acting alone, eschewing or withdrawing from multilateral arrangements for trade, economics, diplomacy or security.

Trump praises “strong” nationalistic leadership in authoritarian countries, while democratic leadership in allied countries is criticized as weak.

In response, allies distance themselves from the United States. Others are emboldened to act in an equally nationalistic and assertive way.

The leaders of Russia and Turkey are strengthening ties.
AP/Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool

Some conservatives, like Sen. John McCain, call for confrontation with Russia and strengthening traditional American alliances, particularly NATO.

Others, like John Bolton, call for regime change in assertive powers like Iran.

Liberals and many Democrats criticize Trump for alienating traditional allies like Canada, France and Germany while befriending dictators. Policy-makers once critical of confrontational policies now condemn Trump for failing to confront Russia and China.

A different president in Washington, D.C., will not restore the “rules-based” international order. The underlying changes in global power relations have already undermined that order.

A neo-conservative foreign policy, featuring unilateral American military intervention, as favored by John Bolton, will only accelerate the global shift. Liberal internationalists like Hillary Clinton would fail as well, because the rest of the world rejects the assumption that the U.S. is “indispensable” and “exceptional.” Barack Obama appeared to recognize the changing reality, but continued to argue that only the U.S. could lead the international system.

The ConversationAmerica will need to learn new rules and play differently in the new balance-of-power world, where others have assets and policies the U.S. does not and cannot control.


Gordon Adams, Professor Emeritus, American University School of International Service

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Gordon Adams does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Trump and the Russian Mob

The September issue of The New Republic features this cover image:


In the following Democracy Now interview, Craig Unger, author of the New Republic article, talks about his research on Trump and the Russian mob.

Who Benefits from the Russian Hacking Story? Centrist Democrats.

Compelling new evidence suggests that there was no hack of DNC servers (by Russia or by anyone else), but rather someone inside the DNC copied a mass of data onto a thumb drive. This explanation is supported by metadata showing that the transfer rate of the “hacked” data was on the order of 23 megabytes/second (twice the average rate of ISP servers in 2016, but a typical rate for transfer to a thumb drive). There’s more evidence in the article below.

I have no doubt that Putin and Russian hackers are capable and guilty of many scurrilous acts, and that Trump has many suspicious connections with Russian oligarchs and mob figures, but this particular story has smelled rotten from the beginning. Cui bono? Who benefits from the idea of Russians messing with our election? Primarily the centrist Democrats who want a good explanation for why they lost, and who want to do anything rather than examine their own shortcomings and the need to reform the party from the bottom up.

” … the highest average ISP speeds of first-half 2016 were achieved by Xfinity and Cox Communications. These speeds averaged 15.6 megabytes per second and 14.7 megabytes per second, respectively. Peak speeds at higher rates were recorded intermittently but still did not reach the required 22.7 megabytes per second.

“A speed of 22.7 megabytes is simply unobtainable, especially if we are talking about a transoceanic data transfer,” Folden said. “Based on the data we now have, what we’ve been calling a hack is impossible.” Last week Forensicator reported on a speed test he conducted more recently. It tightens the case considerably. “Transfer rates of 23 MB/s (Mega Bytes per second) are not just highly unlikely, but effectively impossible to accomplish when communicating over the Internet at any significant distance,” he wrote. “Further, local copy speeds are measured, demonstrating that 23 MB/s is a typical transfer rate when using a USB–2 flash device (thumb drive).”

“Time stamps in the metadata provide further evidence of what happened on July 5. The stamps recording the download indicate that it occurred in the Eastern Daylight Time Zone at approximately 6:45 pm. This confirms that the person entering the DNC system was working somewhere on the East Coast of the United States. In theory the operation could have been conducted from Bangor or Miami or anywhere in between—but not Russia, Romania, or anywhere else outside the EDT zone. Combined with Forensicator’s findings on the transfer rate, the time stamps constitute more evidence that the download was conducted locally, since delivery overheads—conversion of data into packets, addressing, sequencing times, error checks, and the like—degrade all data transfers conducted via the Internet, more or less according to the distance involved.”

Read the full article here:
“A New Report Raises Big Questions About Last Year’s DNC Hack: Former NSA experts say it wasn’t a hack at all, but a leak—an inside job by someone with access to the DNC’s system”

America Last: Will Trump Set a Record for the History Books?

By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first.  When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an — but the — “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort.  He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability.  He ran on the single word “again” — as in “make America great again” — because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore.  And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.

In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington.  The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of… well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)… couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.

Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish.  He sensed that, too.  He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.”  And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.”  And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.

In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had.  The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the cost of a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and… well, you know the story, really you do.  In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.

Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.

And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery.  He answered the $64,000 question.  (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.)  He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.

It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire.  He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones — the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists — away, to wall them out or toss them out or ban them from ever traveling here.  He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory.  It could prove to be a fall for the ages.  Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage.  Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers.  It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.

When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.”  It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it.  It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.

Applying Hard Power to a Failing World

As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power — of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort — by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon.  Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.

Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable.  Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory.  Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today.  They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way.  (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.)  To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices.  In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to 1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.

Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades.  If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal.  While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.

Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster.  This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East.  They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same.  More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikesmore.

After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends — in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse.  Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.

Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance.  Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobe of the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”).  Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Times recently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):

“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”

In other words, more!

Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”

The First American Laster?

If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement.  It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time.  When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push.  It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.

Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election.  It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel.  It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror.  It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch.  It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.

If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked.  Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was.  It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.

So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation?  Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster?  Will it truly be one for the record books?


 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Tom Engelhardt

 

Ordinary Americans carried out inhumane acts for Trump

By Chris Edelson

Baltimore_Demonstrator“A week ago, men and women went to work at airports around the United States as they always do. They showered, got dressed, ate breakfast, perhaps dropped off their kids at school. Then they reported to their jobs as federal government employees, where, according to news reports, one of them handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours at Dulles airport.

“At least one other federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a woman who was traveling with her two children, both U.S. citizens, for 20 hours without food. A relative says the mother was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) and threatened with deportation to Somalia.”

Read the full article in the Baltimore Sun, here.


Chris Edelson (edelson@american.edu) is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book, “Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security,” was published in May 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Many from the Washington Power Elite Are United in Their Dismay About Trump’s White House

Democrats, Republicans and military leaders balk at the president’s recklessness.

Trump Is Carpet-Bombing U.S. Foreign Policy

Already Trump is super-charging U.S. militarism, gutting diplomacy, and punishing the victims of wars Washington started.

By ,
Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus, under a Creative Commons Attribution License

democrats-republicans-foreign-policy-militarism

(Image: AK Rockefeller / Flickr)

Very soon, Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order regarding refugees and entry to the U.S. for a whole swathe of people. In effect, the edict would be aimed at banning Muslims from the United States, demonizing people from Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

It’s no accident that of the seven countries identified, the U.S. is bombing five (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia), has troops deployed and military bases in another (Sudan), and imposes harsh sanctions and frequent threats against the last (Iran).

These military actions all reflect policies that fuel refugee flows in the first place. In a grim irony, the order bans refugees from wars that in many cases the U.S. itself started.

The order violates international law requiring countries to provide refuge to those in desperate need, and completely reverses the long history of the U.S. claim — however often that claim is actually denied — to be a country that welcomes refugees and immigrants.

We should also note that the list of Muslim-majority countries targeted in the new regulations all happen to be countries where the Trump business empire has no holdings. Exceptions just happen to be countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Muslim-majority states where Trump has major investments and business partnerships.

One might think that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that nearly all the 9/11 hijackers came from — and which are currently known to be backing ISIS and other terrorists, in Saudi Arabia’s case, and facing serious terror attacks on their own soil largely in response to government repression, in Egypt’s — would be included in Trump’s twisted analysis as potential sources of terrorism.

But no, those countries were ignored. Conflicts of interest? Nah, just a coincidence.

The order goes on to call for the Pentagon to create a “safe zone in Syria and in the region” to absorb local refugees, to prevent them from heading to Europe and beyond to the U.S. Yet almost inevitably, that means launching more airstrikes on the country — a recipe for more war and more refugees.

This is the opposite of what we should be doing. If we’re serious about taking care of refugees and ending the conditions that give rise to their plight, we must welcome far more of the 65 million people currently displaced in the world. And crucially, we must provide real support — not with more war, but by working to end the wars that create refugees in the first place.

That means demanding that our government privilege diplomacy over war. The Obama administration’s successes in foreign policy — the Paris climate agreement, the moves towards normalization with Cuba, and most especially the nuclear deal with Iran — all emerged from hard-fought campaigns to choose diplomatic over military means.

And even if anyone near the top of the new administration were interested in diplomacy (though there’s no evidence of that!), it just got a whole lot harder.

The soon-to-be-signed executive order creates a lot more work for federal workers, especially in the Department of Homeland Security and in the State Department. Yet the entire top echelon of the State Department’s management just quit and walked out. There are conflicting stories about whether these leaders, who weren’t political appointees, were pushed out by new political leaders or left on their own after being presented with unacceptable demands. But either way, State is now severely understaffed in key areas such as consular services.

For those of us convinced that real internationalism should be the basis of U.S. foreign policy, the State Department has never been a full-fledged ally. U.S. diplomacy is too often deployed in the interest of military goals, U.S. corporate profits, and the undermining of governments deemed insufficiently submissive to U.S. strategic interests — and too rarely in compliance with international law.

But diplomacy and multilateralism, however flawed, are still the key alternatives to military force. Getting rid of the key civil servants who kept U.S. diplomacy functioning fits far too well into the opposite goal — privileging war over diplomacy.

The new president’s budget calls for the Pentagon to get a huge influx of new funds, beyond the $600 billion or so base budget it already has (a figure that doesn’t include the funds that support the nuclear arsenal, care for veterans, or even the war on terror, which run several hundred billion dollars more). The military forces are about to get a lot bigger. And the nuclear arsenal is about to get an enormous influx of money for “modernization.”

Combine that with a State Department more or less incapable of doing anything because they’ve lost all the people who actually know how to make diplomacy happen, and you have a perfect storm of war winning out over diplomacy.

It’s kind of like the way elites have carried out neoliberal policies of privatization and de-regulation: You de-fund and under-staff the public agencies, while shifting money to now deregulated private sector entities. Then you watch while the government agencies fail, thus “proving” that government can’t do anything nearly as well as the private sector.

Only in this case, it’s not the public that fails while the private succeeds. It’s diplomacy that fails while the military wins out. Which means everyone loses.


Middle East expert Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The Age of Disintegration: Neoliberalism, Interventionism, the Resource Curse, and a Fragmenting World

By Patrick Cockburn

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt:

Here’s an unavoidable fact: we are now in a Brexit world. We are seeing the first signs of a major fragmentation of this planet that, until recently, the cognoscenti were convinced was globalizing rapidly and headed for unifications of all sorts. If you want a single figure that catches the grim spirit of our moment, it’s 65 million. That’s the record-setting number of people that the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates were displaced in 2015 by “conflict and persecution,” one of every 113 inhabitants of the planet. That’s more than were generated in the wake of World War II at a time when significant parts of the globe had been devastated. Of the 21 million refugees among them, 51% were children (often separated from their parents and lacking any access to education). Most of the displaced of 2015 were, in fact, internal refugees, still in their own often splintered states. Almost half of those who fled across borders have come from three countries: Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and Somalia (1.1 million).

Despite the headlines about refugees heading for Europe — approximately a million of them made it there last year (with more dying on the way) — most of the uprooted who leave their homelands end up in poor or economically mid-level neighboring lands, with Turkey at 2.5 million refugees leading the way. In this fashion, the disruption of spreading conflicts and chaos, especially across the Greater Middle East and Africa, only brings more conflict and chaos with it wherever those refugees are forced to go.

And keep in mind that, as extreme as that 65 million figure may seem, it undoubtedly represents the beginning, not the end, of a process. For one thing, it doesn’t even include the estimated 19 million people displaced last year by extreme weather events and other natural disasters. Yet in coming decades, the heating of our planet, with attendant weather extremes (like the present heat wave in the American West) and rising sea levels, will undoubtedly produce its own waves of new refugees, only adding to both the conflicts and the fragmentation.

As Patrick Cockburn points out today, we have entered “an age of disintegration.” And he should know. There may be no Western reporter who has covered the grim dawn of that age in the Greater Middle East and North Africa — from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria to Libya — more fully or movingly than he has over this last decade and a half. His latest book, Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East, gives a vivid taste of his reporting and of a world that is at present cracking under the pressure of the conflicts he has witnessed. And imagine that so much of this began, at the bargain-basement cost of a mere $400,000 to $500,000, with 19 (mainly Saudi) fanatics, and a few hijacked airliners. Osama bin Laden must be smiling in his watery grave. Tom

The Age of Disintegration
Neoliberalism, Interventionism, the Resource Curse, and a Fragmenting World
By Patrick Cockburn

We live in an age of disintegration. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Across the vast swath of territory between Pakistan and Nigeria, there are at least seven ongoing wars — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan. These conflicts are extraordinarily destructive. They are tearing apart the countries in which they are taking place in ways that make it doubtful they will ever recover. Cities like Aleppo in Syria, Ramadi in Iraq, Taiz in Yemen, and Benghazi in Libya have been partly or entirely reduced to ruins. There are also at least three other serious insurgencies: in southeast Turkey, where Kurdish guerrillas are fighting the Turkish army, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where a little-reported but ferocious guerrilla conflict is underway, and in northeast Nigeria and neighboring countries where Boko Haram continues to launch murderous attacks.

All of these have a number of things in common: they are endless and seem never to produce definitive winners or losers. (Afghanistan has effectively been at war since 1979, Somalia since 1991.) They involve the destruction or dismemberment of unified nations, their de facto partition amid mass population movements and upheavals — well publicized in the case of Syria and Iraq, less so in places like South Sudan where more than 2.4 million people have been displaced in recent years.

Add in one more similarity, no less crucial for being obvious: in most of these countries, where Islam is the dominant religion, extreme Salafi-Jihadi movements, including the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and the Taliban are essentially the only available vehicles for protest and rebellion. By now, they have completely replaced the socialist and nationalist movements that predominated in the twentieth century; these years have, that is, seen a remarkable reversion to religious, ethnic, and tribal identity, to movements that seek to establish their own exclusive territory by the persecution and expulsion of minorities.

In the process and under the pressure of outside military intervention, a vast region of the planet seems to be cracking open. Yet there is very little understanding of these processes in Washington. This was recently well illustrated by the protest of 51 State Department diplomats against President Obama’s Syrian policy and their suggestion that air strikes be launched targeting Syrian regime forces in the belief that President Bashar al-Assad would then abide by a ceasefire. The diplomats’ approach remains typically simpleminded in this most complex of conflicts, assuming as it does that the Syrian government’s barrel-bombing of civilians and other grim acts are the “root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region.”

It is as if the minds of these diplomats were still in the Cold War era, as if they were still fighting the Soviet Union and its allies. Against all the evidence of the last five years, there is an assumption that a barely extant moderate Syrian opposition would benefit from the fall of Assad, and a lack of understanding that the armed opposition in Syria is entirely dominated by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda clones.

Though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is now widely admitted to have been a mistake (even by those who supported it at the time), no real lessons have been learned about why direct or indirect military interventions by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East over the last quarter century have all only exacerbated violence and accelerated state failure.

A Mass Extinction of Independent States

The Islamic State, just celebrating its second anniversary, is the grotesque outcome of this era of chaos and conflict. That such a monstrous cult exists at all is a symptom of the deep dislocation societies throughout that region, ruled by corrupt and discredited elites, have suffered. Its rise — and that of various Taliban and al-Qaeda-style clones — is a measure of the weakness of its opponents.

The Iraqi army and security forces, for example, had 350,000 soldiers and 660,000 police on the books in June 2014 when a few thousand Islamic State fighters captured Mosul, the country’s second largest city, which they still hold. Today the Iraqi army, security services, and about 20,000 Shia paramilitaries backed by the massive firepower of the United States and allied air forces have fought their way into the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, against the resistance of IS fighters who may have numbered as few as 900. In Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban, supposedly decisively defeated in 2001, came about less because of the popularity of that movement than the contempt with which Afghans came to regard their corrupt government in Kabul.

Everywhere nation states are enfeebled or collapsing, as authoritarian leaders battle for survival in the face of mounting external and internal pressures. This is hardly the way the region was expected to develop. Countries that had escaped from colonial rule in the second half of the twentieth century were supposed to become more, not less, unified as time passed.

Between 1950 and 1975, nationalist leaders came to power in much of the previously colonized world. They promised to achieve national self-determination by creating powerful independent states through the concentration of whatever political, military, and economic resources were at hand. Instead, over the decades, many of these regimes transmuted into police states controlled by small numbers of staggeringly wealthy families and a coterie of businessmen dependent on their connections to such leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

In recent years, such countries were also opened up to the economic whirlwind of neoliberalism, which destroyed any crude social contract that existed between rulers and ruled. Take Syria. There, rural towns and villages that had once supported the Baathist regime of the al-Assad family because it provided jobs and kept the prices of necessities low were, after 2000, abandoned to market forces skewed in favor of those in power. These places would become the backbone of the post-2011 uprising. At the same time, institutions like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that had done so much to enhance the wealth and power of regional oil producers in the 1970s have lost their capacity for united action.

The question for our moment: Why is a “mass extinction” of independent states taking place in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond? Western politicians and media often refer to such countries as “failed states.” The implication embedded in that term is that the process is a self-destructive one. But several of the states now labeled “failed” like Libya only became so after Western-backed opposition movements seized power with the support and military intervention of Washington and NATO, and proved too weak to impose their own central governments and so a monopoly of violence within the national territory.

In many ways, this process began with the intervention of a U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in 2003 leading to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the shutting down of his Baathist Party, and the disbanding of his military. Whatever their faults, Saddam and Libya’s autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi were clearly demonized and blamed for all ethnic, sectarian, and regional differences in the countries they ruled, forces that were, in fact, set loose in grim ways upon their deaths.

A question remains, however: Why did the opposition to autocracy and to Western intervention take on an Islamic form and why were the Islamic movements that came to dominate the armed resistance in Iraq and Syria in particular so violent, regressive, and sectarian? Put another way, how could such groups find so many people willing to die for their causes, while their opponents found so few? When IS battle groups were sweeping through northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, soldiers who had thrown aside their uniforms and weapons and deserted that country’s northern cities would justify their flight by saying derisively: “Die for [then-Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki? Never!”

A common explanation for the rise of Islamic resistance movements is that the socialist, secularist, and nationalist opposition had been crushed by the old regimes’ security forces, while the Islamists were not. In countries like Libya and Syria, however, Islamists were savagely persecuted, too, and they still came to dominate the opposition. And yet, while these religious movements were strong enough to oppose governments, they generally have not proven strong enough to replace them.

Too Weak to Win, But Too Strong to Lose

Though there are clearly many reasons for the present disintegration of states and they differ somewhat from place to place, one thing is beyond question: the phenomenon itself is becoming the norm across vast reaches of the planet.

If you’re looking for the causes of state failure in our time, the place to start is undoubtedly with the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago. Once it was over, neither the U.S. nor the new Russia that emerged from the Soviet Union’s implosion had a significant interest in continuing to prop up “failed states,” as each had for so long, fearing that the rival superpower and its local proxies would otherwise take over. Previously, national leaders in places like the Greater Middle East had been able to maintain a degree of independence for their countries by balancing between Moscow and Washington. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, this was no longer feasible.

In addition, the triumph of neoliberal free-market economics in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse added a critical element to the mix. It would prove far more destabilizing than it looked at the time.

Again, consider Syria. The expansion of the free market in a country where there was neither democratic accountability nor the rule of law meant one thing above all: plutocrats linked to the nation’s ruling family took anything that seemed potentially profitable. In the process, they grew staggeringly wealthy, while the denizens of Syria’s impoverished villages, country towns, and city slums, who had once looked to the state for jobs and cheap food, suffered. It should have surprised no one that those places became the strongholds of the Syrian uprising after 2011. In the capital, Damascus, as the reign of neoliberalism spread, even the lesser members of the mukhabarat, or secret police, found themselves living on only $200 to $300 a month, while the state became a machine for thievery.

This sort of thievery and the auctioning off of the nation’s patrimony spread across the region in these years. The new Egyptian ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, merciless toward any sign of domestic dissent, was typical. In a country that once had been a standard bearer for nationalist regimes the world over, he didn’t hesitate this April to try to hand over two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia on whose funding and aid his regime is dependent. (To the surprise of everyone, an Egyptian court recently overruled Sisi’s decision.)

That gesture, deeply unpopular among increasingly impoverished Egyptians, was symbolic of a larger change in the balance of power in the Middle East: once the most powerful states in the region — Egypt, Syria, and Iraq — had been secular nationalists and a genuine counterbalance to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies. As those secular autocracies weakened, however, the power and influence of the Sunni fundamentalist monarchies only increased. If 2011 saw rebellion and revolution spread across the Greater Middle East as the Arab Spring briefly blossomed, it also saw counterrevolution spread, funded by those oil-rich absolute Gulf monarchies, which were never going to tolerate democratic secular regime change in Syria or Libya.

Add in one more process at work making such states ever more fragile: the production and sale of natural resources — oil, gas, and minerals — and the kleptomania that goes with it. Such countries often suffer from what has become known as “the resources curse”: states increasingly dependent for revenues on the sale of their natural resources — enough to theoretically provide the whole population with a reasonably decent standard of living — turn instead into grotesquely corrupt dictatorships. In them, the yachts of local billionaires with crucial connections to the regime of the moment bob in harbors surrounded by slums running with raw sewage. In such nations, politics tends to focus on elites battling and maneuvering to steal state revenues and transfer them as rapidly as possible out of the country.

This has been the pattern of economic and political life in much of sub-Saharan Africa from Angola to Nigeria. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, a somewhat different system exists, one usually misunderstood by the outside world. There is similarly great inequality in Iraq or Saudi Arabia with similarly kleptocratic elites. They have, however, ruled over patronage states in which a significant part of the population is offered jobs in the public sector in return for political passivity or support for the kleptocrats.

In Iraq with a population of 33 million people, for instance, no less than seven million of them are on the government payroll, thanks to salaries or pensions that cost the government $4 billion a month. This crude way of distributing oil revenues to the people has often been denounced by Western commentators and economists as corruption. They, in turn, generally recommend cutting the number of these jobs, but this would mean that all, rather than just part, of the state’s resource revenues would be stolen by the elite. This, in fact, is increasingly the case in such lands as oil prices bottom out and even the Saudi royals begin to cut back on state support for the populace.

Neoliberalism was once believed to be the path to secular democracy and free-market economies. In practice, it has been anything but. Instead, in conjunction with the resource curse, as well as repeated military interventions by Washington and its allies, free-market economics has profoundly destabilized the Greater Middle East. Encouraged by Washington and Brussels, twenty-first-century neoliberalism has made unequal societies ever more unequal and helped transform already corrupt regimes into looting machines. This is also, of course, a formula for the success of the Islamic State or any other radical alternative to the status quo. Such movements are bound to find support in impoverished or neglected regions like eastern Syria or eastern Libya.

Note, however, that this process of destabilization is by no means confined to the Greater Middle East and North Africa. We are indeed in the age of destabilization, a phenomenon that is on the rise globally and at present spreading into the Balkans and Eastern Europe (with the European Union ever less able to influence events there). People no longer speak of European integration, but of how to prevent the complete break-up of the European Union in the wake of the British vote to leave.

The reasons why a narrow majority of Britons voted for Brexit have parallels with the Middle East: the free-market economic policies pursued by governments since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister have widened the gap between rich and poor and between wealthy cities and much of the rest of the country. Britain might be doing well, but millions of Britons did not share in the prosperity. The referendum about continued membership in the European Union, the option almost universally advocated by the British establishment, became the catalyst for protest against the status quo. The anger of the “Leave” voters has much in common with that of Donald Trump supporters in the United States.

The U.S. remains a superpower, but is no longer as powerful as it once was. It, too, is feeling the strains of this global moment, in which it and its local allies are powerful enough to imagine they can get rid of regimes they do not like, but either they do not quite succeed, as in Syria, or succeed but cannot replace what they have destroyed, as in Libya. An Iraqi politician once said that the problem in his country was that parties and movements were “too weak to win, but too strong to lose.” This is increasingly the pattern for the whole region and is spreading elsewhere. It carries with it the possibility of an endless cycle of indecisive wars and an era of instability that has already begun.


Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East correspondent for the Independent of London and the author of five books on the Middle East, the latest of which is Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East(OR Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Cockburn

Thomas Frank: How the Democrats Created a “Liberalism of the Rich”

By Thomas Frank, author of the just-published Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books) from which this essay is adapted. He has also written Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter With Kansas? among other works. He is the founding editor of The Baffler. Reprinted with permission from Tomdispatch.com

When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds — their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their flaccid response to Wall Street misbehavior — when you press them on any of these things, they automatically reply that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff get through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered the congressional districts. And besides, change takes a long time. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.

So let’s go to a place that does. Let’s choose a locale where Democratic rule is virtually unopposed, a place where Republican obstruction and sabotage can’t taint the experiment.

Let’s go to Boston, Massachusetts, the spiritual homeland of the professional class and a place where the ideology of modern liberalism has been permitted to grow and flourish without challenge or restraint. As the seat of American higher learning, it seems unsurprising that Boston should anchor one of the most Democratic of states, a place where elected Republicans (like the new governor) are highly unusual. This is the city that virtually invented the blue-state economic model, in which prosperity arises from higher education and the knowledge-based industries that surround it.

The coming of post-industrial society has treated this most ancient of American cities extremely well. Massachusetts routinely occupies the number one spot on the State New Economy Index, a measure of how “knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-driven, and innovation-based” a place happens to be. Boston ranks high on many of Richard Florida’s statistical indices of approbation — in 2003, it was number one on the “creative class index,” number three in innovation and in high tech — and his many books marvel at the city’s concentration of venture capital, its allure to young people, or the time it enticed some firm away from some unenlightened locale in the hinterlands.

Boston’s knowledge economy is the best, and it is the oldest. Boston’s metro area encompasses some 85 private colleges and universities, the greatest concentration of higher-ed institutions in the country — probably in the world. The region has all the ancillary advantages to show for this: a highly educated population, an unusually large number of patents, and more Nobel laureates than any other city in the country.

The city’s Route 128 corridor was the original model for a suburban tech district, lined ever since it was built with defense contractors and computer manufacturers. The suburbs situated along this golden thoroughfare are among the wealthiest municipalities in the nation, populated by engineers, lawyers, and aerospace workers. Their public schools are excellent, their downtowns are cute, and back in the seventies their socially enlightened residents were the prototype for the figure of the “suburban liberal.”

Another prototype: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, situated in Cambridge, is where our modern conception of the university as an incubator for business enterprises began. According to a report on MIT’s achievements in this category, the school’s alumni have started nearly 26,000 companies over the years, including Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Qualcomm. If you were to take those 26,000 companies as a separate nation, the report tells us, its economy would be one of the most productive in the world.

Then there are Boston’s many biotech and pharmaceutical concerns, grouped together in what is known as the “life sciences super cluster,” which, properly understood, is part of an “ecosystem” in which PhDs can “partner” with venture capitalists and in which big pharmaceutical firms can acquire small ones. While other industries shrivel, the Boston super cluster grows, with the life-sciences professionals of the world lighting out for the Athens of America and the massive new “innovation centers” shoehorning themselves one after the other into the crowded academic suburb of Cambridge.

To think about it slightly more critically, Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has madethis city so very rich.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality. Once the visitor leaves the brainy bustle of Boston, he discovers that this state is filled with wreckage — with former manufacturing towns in which workers watch their way of life draining away, and with cities that are little more than warehouses for people on Medicare. According to one survey, Massachusetts has the eighth-worst rate of income inequality among the states; by another metric it ranks fourth. However you choose to measure the diverging fortunes of the country’s top 10% and the rest, Massachusetts always seems to finish among the nation’s most unequal places.

Seething City on a Cliff

You can see what I mean when you visit Fall River, an old mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Median household income in that city is $33,000, among the lowest in the state; unemployment is among the highest, 15% in March 2014, nearly five years after the recession ended. Twenty-three percent of Fall River’s inhabitants live in poverty. The city lost its many fabric-making concerns decades ago and with them it lost its reason for being. People have been deserting the place for decades.

Many of the empty factories in which their ancestors worked are still standing, however. Solid nineteenth-century structures of granite or brick, these huge boxes dominate the city visually — there always seems to be one or two of them in the vista, contrasting painfully with whatever colorful plastic fast-food joint has been slapped up next door.

Most of the old factories are boarded up, unmistakable emblems of hopelessness right up to the roof. But the ones that have been successfully repurposed are in some ways even worse, filled as they often are with enterprises offering cheap suits or help with drug addiction. A clinic in the hulk of one abandoned mill has a sign on the window reading simply “Cancer & Blood.”

The effect of all this is to remind you with every prospect that this is a place and a way of life from which the politicians have withdrawn their blessing. Like so many other American scenes, this one is the product of decades of deindustrialization, engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats. This is a place where affluence never returns — not because affluence for Fall River is impossible or unimaginable, but because our country’s leaders have blandly accepted a social order that constantly bids down the wages of people like these while bidding up the rewards for innovators, creatives, and professionals.

Even the city’s one real hope for new employment opportunities — an Amazon warehouse that is now in the planning stages — will serve to lock in this relationship. If all goes according to plan, and if Amazon sticks to the practices it has pioneered elsewhere, people from Fall River will one day get to do exhausting work with few benefits while being electronically monitored for efficiency, in order to save the affluent customers of nearby Boston a few pennies when they buy books or electronics.

But that is all in the future. These days, the local newspaper publishes an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians, and the lamentable surplus of “affordable housing.” The town is up to its eyeballs in wrathful bitterness against public workers. As in: Why do they deserve a decent life when the rest of us have no chance at all? It’s every man for himself here in a “competition for crumbs,” as a Fall River friend puts it.

The Great Entrepreneurial Awakening

If Fall River is pocked with empty mills, the streets of Boston are dotted with facilities intended to make innovation and entrepreneurship easy and convenient. I was surprised to discover, during the time I spent exploring the city’s political landscape, that Boston boasts a full-blown Innovation District, a disused industrial neighborhood that has actually been zoned creative — a projection of the post-industrial blue-state ideal onto the urban grid itself. The heart of the neighborhood is a building called “District Hall” — “Boston’s New Home for Innovation” — which appeared to me to be a glorified multipurpose room, enclosed in a sharply angular façade, and sharing a roof with a restaurant that offers “inventive cuisine for innovative people.” The Wi-Fi was free, the screens on the walls displayed famous quotations about creativity, and the walls themselves were covered with a high-gloss finish meant to be written on with dry-erase markers; but otherwise it was not much different from an ordinary public library. Aside from not having anything to read, that is.

This was my introduction to the innovation infrastructure of the city, much of it built up by entrepreneurs shrewdly angling to grab a piece of the entrepreneur craze. There are “co-working” spaces, shared offices for startups that can’t afford the real thing. There are startup “incubators” and startup “accelerators,” which aim to ease the innovator’s eternal struggle with an uncaring public: the Startup Institute, for example, and the famous MassChallenge, the “World’s Largest Startup Accelerator,” which runs an annual competition for new companies and hands out prizes at the end.

And then there are the innovation Democrats, led by former Governor Deval Patrick, who presided over the Massachusetts government from 2007 to 2015. He is typical of liberal-class leaders; you might even say he is their most successful exemplar. Everyone seems to like him, even his opponents. He is a witty and affable public speaker as well as a man of competence, a highly educated technocrat who is comfortable in corporate surroundings. Thanks to his upbringing in a Chicago housing project, he also understands the plight of the poor, and (perhaps best of all) he is an honest politician in a state accustomed to wide-open corruption. Patrick was also the first black governor of Massachusetts and, in some ways, an ideal Democrat for the era of Barack Obama — who, as it happens, is one of his closest political allies.

As governor, Patrick became a kind of missionary for the innovation cult. “The Massachusetts economy is an innovation economy,” he liked to declare, and he made similar comments countless times, slightly varying the order of the optimistic keywords: “Innovation is a centerpiece of the Massachusetts economy,” et cetera. The governor opened “innovation schools,” a species of ramped-up charter school. He signed the “Social Innovation Compact,” which had something to do with meeting “the private sector’s need for skilled entry-level professional talent.” In a 2009 speech called “The Innovation Economy,” Patrick elaborated the political theory of innovation in greater detail, telling an audience of corporate types in Silicon Valley about Massachusetts’s “high concentration of brainpower” and “world-class” universities, and how “we in government are actively partnering with the private sector and the universities, to strengthen our innovation industries.”

What did all of this inno-talk mean? Much of the time, it was pure applesauce — standard-issue platitudes to be rolled out every time some pharmaceutical company opened an office building somewhere in the state.

On some occasions, Patrick’s favorite buzzword came with a gigantic price tag, like the billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks that the governor authorized in 2008 to encourage pharmaceutical and biotech companies to do business in Massachusetts. On still other occasions, favoring inno has meant bulldozing the people in its path — for instance, the taxi drivers whose livelihoods are being usurped by ridesharing apps like Uber. When these workers staged a variety of protests in the Boston area, Patrick intervened decisively on the side of the distant software company. Apparently convenience for the people who ride in taxis was more important than good pay for people who drive those taxis. It probably didn’t hurt that Uber had hired a former Patrick aide as a lobbyist, but the real point was, of course, innovation: Uber was the future, the taxi drivers were the past, and the path for Massachusetts was obvious.

A short while later, Patrick became something of an innovator himself. After his time as governor came to an end last year, he won a job as a managing director of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that was founded by his predecessor Mitt Romney — and that had been so powerfully denounced by Democrats during the 2012 election. Patrick spoke about the job like it was just another startup: “It was a happy and timely coincidence I was interested in building a business that Bain was also interested in building,” he told theWall Street Journal. Romney reportedly phoned him with congratulations.

Entrepreneurs First

At a 2014 celebration of Governor Patrick’s innovation leadership, Google’s Eric Schmidt announced that “if you want to solve the economic problems of the U.S., create more entrepreneurs.” That sort of sums up the ideology in this corporate commonwealth: Entrepreneurs first. But how has such a doctrine become holy writ in a party dedicated to the welfare of the common man? And how has all this come to pass in the liberal state of Massachusetts?

The answer is that I’ve got the wrong liberalism. The kind of liberalism that has dominated Massachusetts for the last few decades isn’t the stuff of Franklin Roosevelt or the United Auto Workers; it’s the Route 128/suburban-professionals variety. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is the great exception to this rule.) Professional-class liberals aren’t really alarmed by oversized rewards for society’s winners. On the contrary, this seems natural to them — because they are society’s winners. The liberalism of professionals just does not extend to matters of inequality; this is the area where soft hearts abruptly turn hard.

Innovation liberalism is “a liberalism of the rich,” to use the straightforward phrase of local labor leader Harris Gruman. This doctrine has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth. What Massachusetts liberals pine for, by and large, is a more perfect meritocracy — a system where the essential thing is to ensure that the truly talented get into the right schools and then get to rise through the ranks of society. Unfortunately, however, as the blue-state model makes painfully clear, there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The ideology of educational achievement conveniently negates any esteem we might feel for the poorly graduated.

This is a curious phenomenon, is it not? A blue state where the Democrats maintain transparent connections to high finance and big pharma; where they have deliberately chosen distant software barons over working-class members of their own society; and where their chief economic proposals have to do with promoting “innovation,” a grand and promising idea that remains suspiciously vague. Nor can these innovation Democrats claim that their hands were forced by Republicans. They came up with this program all on their own.

Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books) from which this essay is adapted. He has also written Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter With Kansas? among other works. He is the founding editor of The Baffler.

Copyright 2016 Thomas Frank


 

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